Audra walked back into her apartments, followed by her bodyguard, Mica. She removed the thin gauzy stole she wore over her light evening gown, and let it fall over a stool. Without breaking stride for her bedchamber, she smiled into the shadows at the far end of the room.
“I know you’re there, priestess. Would you care to tell me why you would risk revealing my identity to visit me here and now? I might have had a patron with me,” she disappeared into her bedchamber. Mica followed. A shadowy figure rose from the far end of the room and walked after them.
“Your Majesty,” the priestess began.
“That’s a form of address I haven’t heard since I was very small,” Audra said, walking over to a beaten metal mirror. She pulled the combs out of her long brown hair, letting it fall out of its intricate loops and swirls. She looked at the priestess’ reflection in the mirror, as she took a cloth to wipe the kohl from around her eyes. “What do you want?”
“The Temple wants you to press your claim to the throne,” the priestess said after a long moment during which her face remained impassive, except for the smallest of creases between her eyebrows.
“Why on earth would you want that?” Audra laughed. "You’re the ones who talked my mother into giving me up.”
“That was, ultimately, your mother’s decision,” the priestess said, her lips a thin, hard line.
“Don’t lie to me,” Audra said, her tone growing sharp, “particularly if you want my cooperation. I was young, yes, but old enough to remember.” She removed the heavy earrings she’d been wearing all night and replaced them with tiny, simple silver hoops, the same with the silver florette in her left nostril. “You want me to depose my brother. I am very tempted to tell the Temple it can clean up its own messes.”
“We are trying to, Your Majesty,” the Priestess said. “That is why we need you to come back and claim the throne.”
“Slaves lose all status once they’ve been given up,” Audra said, walking over to a divan and draping herself across it, looking for all the world like a soft, pampered creature concerned only with her own pleasure.
“There have been occasions when all other heirs have died. We have quietly returned children to their families in those very rare cases. There is precedent.”
“But my brother isn’t dead. He’s just an idiot,” she said, lounging and reaching idly for a bunch of grapes on a nearby plate. Mica stood at attention next to the divan.
“Your Majesty, your people suffer under your brother’s rule. You can relieve their suffering.” The priestess, sitting ramrod straight, looked uncomfortable.
“And how do you propose to justify bringing me back?” Audra paused, grapes halfway to her mouth.
“His wife, your cousin Melora, is old enough to be implicated in the plot to depose you,” the Priestess said.
“You people are utterly shameless.” Audra tossed the grapes back on the plate, her upper lip curling. “You turn us into whores, assassins, arrow fodder… You tear me from my own mother to make way for my weak-willed brother…”
“Everything we do, we do for the greater good of the Land,” the Priestess said, her back stiff, drawn up to her full height. “In this case, we erred, greatly. We will do whatever we have to, to fix that error.”
“And if I tell you to fuck off, what then?” Audra asked, her eyes narrowing. “Apart from finding myself at the end of one of my Temple Sibling’s blades.”
“We will kill your brother and his wife, and one of our number will regent his infant daughter.”
“And you’d rather have me, even having a ready made puppet so easily at hand?” Audra asked, sitting up a little.
“We have seen your dedication to the Land. You have already displayed an uncanny wisdom beyond your years.” The priestess's eyes and lips tightened.
“And you fear revolt should you take the throne so overtly,” Audra said, she lay back again and looked up at her hulking bodyguard. “What do you say, Mica? Shall we go home and take the throne to save our country?”
“I am yours to command, Lady Audra,” he said, eyes on the priestess.
“I will think about it,” Audra said, waving a hand dismissively toward the priestess.
“Do not take too long,” the priestess said. “Word will be sent of an ailing former patron who may be leaving you some property back home.” She turned. “No one will see me leave.” And she was gone.
Audra stood and went to her vanity. She pulled out a hand mirror, and turned in a circle, examining the room in its reflection.
“We can talk,” she said, after a second and third inspection of the room, seeing nothing but her own wards. “You’re not happy about this, are you?”
“I don’t trust them,” he said, relaxing his posture. “You shouldn’t either.”
“I don’t,” she said. “But she does have a point. My brother is an idiot. He’s a weak-willed fool and my cousin is a scheming bitch. And if the Temple does anything so overt has having the two of them killed, the people will revolt. Good or bad, they do love my family.” She put the mirror back, and walked over to him, sliding her hands over the leather armor covering his chest. She stretched up and kissed him. He kissed her, back, leaning his spear against the divan, and pulling her close. “You were saying this assignment had gotten boring since we took out the key players in that last conspiracy.”
“I think I’ll take boring over being executed as traitors to the crown,” he said, breaking off the kiss.
“Wouldn’t it be exciting, to pit ourselves against the rest of our Siblings?” she asked, looking into his eyes. Her pupils had expanded, occluding the deep chocolate brown irises. “Prove ourselves to be the best the Temple had ever trained.”
“And when they discover you’re even less malleable than they supposed?” he asked, as she stretched up to gently nip his throat.
“Don’t worry. I’ve been thinking about that for a very long time,” she said, her voice dropping as she pulled him toward the bed.
“You don’t think they’ve considered that?”
“I’m sure they have,” she said, pulling her gown off over her head. She dropped it on the floor and lay back on the bed, looking up at him expectantly. “I’ve thought about that, too.”
“You’re going to get us killed,” he said, shedding his armor as quickly as he could to join her on the bed.
“Not if I can help it,” she said, arching her back as he crawled over her. “Have I ever failed you?”
“Not yet,” he kissed her, ending the conversation.
“I am so terribly sorry to leave you, my Lord,” Audra said, fawning over the minor noble she’d been mistress to for the past two years. “Alas, one of my former patrons has apparently left me some property back in my homeland, and unless I take possession of it soon, I may lose it. I won’t have my looks forever, my Lord. I will need a home to which to retire.”
“I can’t imagine you looking any way but utterly enchanting,” he said, kissing her knuckles. “If you must leave, you must leave. You will come back to me, my Pearl?”
“I will count the hours,” she said, laying a hand against his cheek. “You have been so very good to me.”
“Allow me to be better,” he said. “I will give you horses to replace those tired nags that pull your coach.” Behind her, Audra imagined the silent bristling of Mica, those nags were his pride and joy.
“I couldn’t,” she said. “The gossip!”
“Then a saddle horse,” he said. “You ride extremely well for one of your people.”
“I will accept a saddle horse, my Lord. Gratefully so, and think of you whenever I ride him.” She smiled and leaned forward to kiss him. Mica withdrew to stand outside the room.
“That was laying it on a bit thick,” Mica said, once they were alone inside her carriage, the gift horse tied to the back, his groom perched on the back of the carriage.
“We may need an escape plan,” she said. “With grateful patrons in every city I’ve ever been stationed in, we might be able to throw off pursuit long enough to get away if need be.”
“You really have been thinking about this for a very long time, haven’t you?” he said.
“All my life,” she said. “Just because they beat the habit of calling myself a princess out of me, it doesn’t mean I ever quit being one.” She leaned back. “We were once warrior queens, and I intend to bring that tradition back into practice.” She closed her eyes. “I will sleep alone tonight, Mica.”
“Another of your escape plans?” he asked, frowning.
“One can never have too many friends, or hold too many of their secrets,” she said smiling, eyes still closed.